Wait..Hold up…Spoilers ahead.
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak got rave reviews which made me pick it up. However, it has now become one of those books for me that everyone likes but I mildly dislike.
The story is about a woman named Ella Rubinstein living in Northampton, Massachusetts in the USA. She seems to have it all: a loving husband, three loving children and a good house. Yet she is at the brink where she is rethinking about her life. There seems to be some undercurrent of monotony and dislike in her marriage with her husband, David. Ella seems to be questioning her life choices and going through a mid life crisis at she turns the dreaded age of forty. This constant doubting on their marriage and her life led her to seek jobs and she landed with one in a literary agency which had assigned her to read and do a report on an obscure book, Sweet Blasphemy by an even obscure author, A.Z. Zahara.
As the story foreshadows,
“Little did she know that this was going to be not just any book, but the book that changed her life. In the time she was reading it, her life would be rewritten.”
So The Forty Rules of Love begins with a prologue about Ella and then has another one which is that of the novel, Sweet Blasphemy.
So what is Sweet Blasphemy about that it changed her life?
The story is about how the wandering Sufi, Shams of Tabriz, became friends with the well established Sufi saint, Rumi. This meeting altered the course of both their lives. Their friendship and the forty rules that Shams narrates resonates with Ella and the happenings of her life too. She also finds a friend in the author, A.Z. Zahara, when he replies to her email and they go back and forth describing their own lives via email. Ella finds a friend in him that she couldn’t in David. Moreover, Zahara’s book echoes with her profoundly.
The story within the story style was the best aspect of the novel. The highlight for me was definitely the interior narrative which gives a glimpse into Sufi thought through Shams’ forty rules that he often narrates to people he meets.
The outer narrative was another matter altogether. Though of course, my personal biases can creep in when it comes to judging a typical American protagonist who seems to have everything. Yet I chose not to let that get in that way and still found that the outer narrative was riddled with stereotypes from an entitled American position such as having a preconceived notion that less developed parts of the world are not as safe (“How could people like Aziz Z. Zahara find the desire and courage to travel the less-developed parts of the globe when even the suburbs in America weren’t safe anymore?”) or how other countries are more dangerous.
Moreover, the outer narrative also freely used several well worn tropes such as the lover getting cancer or the woman who is distressed in love and takes to eastern spiritualism to uplift her circumstances or to start anew (Remember Eat, Pray, Love?).
However, the inner narrative was told from the perspective of many different characters that made it quite colourful, be it Shams or Rumi themselves or Rumi’s family or the prostitute romantically named, Desert Rose, or the local drunkard, Suleiman, who is more religious than the others who abstained from the maligned drink, among many other equally affable characters.
The writing was also not that nuanced, sounding hackneyed and overdone. Though many people would enjoy the simplicity of it. The tone could be preachy at times. But perhaps this is my stereotype since I am not someone who would go for spiritual or self help books where advice is shared. Though I did enjoy some of the forty rules and enjoyed Shams’ not giving a damn attitude, the sayings often came at a time in the narrative that seemed too forced and unnatural and perhaps that also added to the platitudinous tone of the novel.
What made me read it was the fact that I do enjoy Sufi poems and like to know more about Sufi mysticism but I have mostly known it in terms of India. I was interested to read The Forty Rules of Love and know more about Rumi and his ideas. The inner narrative does help one to delve deeper in his thoughts and concepts of Sufi spirituality such as the whirling dervishes and the musical instruments used or ideas of the perfect human being.
However, what could have also helped to get the right flavor of his words and other concepts was if the narrative had used more native or local words rather than only having Rumi’s or Sham’s sayings or poems in English. For me, that would help to get more connected to the language and the essence of their words even though I might not understand everything. Shafak has peppered the narrative with Arabic words for which there is a glossary provided at the back but the same could have also been done with the forty rules and other poems and sayings as well.
The novel, The Forty Rules of Love, though, does help in more understanding of the nuances of Islam and throws an important light on Sufi thought and those who have no or little idea about it, will find the story quite engaging.
However, for me, it was nothing more than a gimmick perhaps to help Rumi’s words resonate with American readers and profit from his growing popularity in the West.
I think I am still willing to read some of her books again especially because they often have female characters at the helm such as The Three Daughters of Eve.
Have you read The Forty Rules of Love? What did you think about it? Have you read other books by Elif Shafak?
Share in the comments below.